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Spring interrupted; Lawmaker calls for investigation of ‘homeless’ man’s vote; 12 more state news briefs

Spring is interrupted by winter again this morning in northern Wisconsin.

Mason in Bayfield County had nine inches of snow and counting as of 1:30 a.m. Hawthorne in Douglas had 8.5 inches. Ashland and Solon Springs had seven inches as of midnight. Other parts of the north, away from Lake Superior, had 2-4 inches.

The National Weather Service says the heaviest snow is supposed to taper off late this morning and early afternoon in the far north. Watches and warnings continue until tomorrow morning in the far northwest, and until 7 p.m. in the northern half of the state. Up to 15-inches of snow is still predicted for the far north.

Central areas could get 3-6 inches with 1-3 south of Marshfield. Many spots are also getting freezing rain with the potential for ice and power outages.

Xcel Energy reported about 300 outages in the Eau Claire-Chippewa Falls region as of 5 a.m., but only a handful of outages were reported elsewhere by the state's largest utilities.

Light rain is in the forecast for southern Wisconsin today. Everything's supposed to clear out tonight with a sunny day in store for tomorrow highs close to 40 in the north and 50 in the south.


Lawmaker calls for investigation of ‘homeless’ man’s vote

The head of the state Legislature's mining committee has asked officials to investigate the legality of a mining opponent's vote Tuesday.

Senate Republican Tom Tiffany of Hazelhurst wants the Department of Justice and the Government Accountability Board to review a vote made in Iron County by Nick Vander Puy. He's the administrator of a mining protest camp, which the Iron County Board recently voted to remove from public land near the proposed Gogebic Taconite iron ore mine.

WSAU Radio in Wausau said Vander Puy wrote on social media about voting as a homeless person at Upson in Iron County. Tiffany said he wanted to know if Vander Puy has a permanent address and whether he voted from that address as well as the place where he's been camping in Iron County.

The protest camp spent 11 months on the county-owned property before the board evicted them for not following a requirement to limit their stay to 14 days at a time.

Camp organizers recently told the Northland's TV News Center they were in the process of setting up a camp across the street from the old site on private land. The TV report said structures at the old site could stay, and the land would still be open to people wishing to use it.


‘Magical relationship’ ends in woman’s death

A 39-year-old man told authorities he had a magical relationship with a Dane County woman before she put a gun in his mouth and a resulting struggle ended in her death.

Phillip Byrd, a steelworker from Mansfield, Mass., was charged yesterday with first-degree intentional homicide. He's accused of killing his ex-girlfriend, Cheryl Gilberg, 43, who was found dead Feb. 23 at her home in Mazomanie.

Byrd waived the state's time limit for a preliminary hearing. The status of his case will be reviewed at a hearing April 21.

Authorities said they found Byrd in Janesville the day after the killing. They arrested him on outstanding warrants for driving drunk and not paying child support.

Prosecutors did not explain how Byrd was tracked to Rock County, where he's been jailed since his arrest. A prosecutor said Byrd's job as a steelworker gave him contacts throughout the nation, and he's been frequently moving. Prosecutors said Byrd was addicted to alcohol and crack cocaine.


Final Four floor had its start on Menominee reservation

Wisconsin hopes to leave a rich basketball memory on a floor rooted in one of the state's poorest areas.

The Badgers will play Kentucky tomorrow night in the NCAA men's Final Four on a floor that got its start on the Menominee Indian Reservation.

Conner Sports International of Salt Lake City has a contract with the NCAA to build the special floor for the national semifinals and Monday night's title game.

Conner said the floor came from maple trees in Wisconsin's Menominee County. The trees were harvested in the winter when the wood is lighter and less sappy. The logs are then made into four by seven foot grooved panels at a plant in Menominee, Mich.  After that, Conner uses a finishing contractor to sand and smooth the floor before putting on the markings and logos.

It takes about 30 trees to make one basketball court, using top-quality maple.

--Larry Lee, WSAU, Wausau


School secretary convicted of embezzling $300,000

A former school secretary in suburban Milwaukee will spend at least 10 months in a federal prison for embezzling over $300,000.

Donna Sternke, 55, of Slinger was sentenced yesterday to a year and a day behind bars. The extra day makes Sternke eligible for an early release two months before her sentence ends upon good behavior.

She was a longtime secretary in the Shorewood school system. Prosecutors said she took the money from special education funds over a 12-year period. Prosecutors said Sternke wrote false purchase orders and used the money for shopping and to pay down her credit cards.

Officials said they caught her in 2011 after she used school funds to buy unexplained water-park gift cards.


Workers’ medical spending share jumps 20%

Employers continue to pay smaller shares of the health insurance they offer their workers.

The suburban Milwaukee firm of Zywave said 32% of health plans had out-of-pocket spending limits of over $5,000 by the end of last year. That's up from 20% the previous year.

Michelle Jackson of Zywave said it could be a sign that employers are moving closer to the new out-of-pocket expense limits in the Affordable Care Act which cap a person's expenses at $6,300 this year for individuals and $12,700 for families.

Zywave is based in Wauwatosa. It creates software for insurance brokers and keeps track of payment trends with a database of 70,000 health plans used by 50,000 employers.

Jackson said the deductibles are starting to hit people pretty hard. They're also cited for the slowest growth in U.S. health care spending in the last 50 years with an increase of 3.7% in 2012.


Driver dies in truck explosion

An industrial truck exploded near Green Bay, killing its driver and critically injuring a passenger.

The incident happened about 1:25 p.m. yesterday on a road between two buildings at Ace Manufacturing in Howard.

The truck was carrying a load between the two buildings, which are almost 1,000 feet apart. Authorities said the load moved forward and pierced a natural gas fuel system which caused the vehicle to explode and the trailer to blow apart. Neighbors reported hearing the blast from a half mile away.

The driver died at the scene. His passenger was taken to a hospital after he was thrown from the truck.


New law extends TIF powers to heavily populated towns

Wisconsin's most populated towns will soon get the same tax incremental financing powers as cities and villages.

Gov. Scott Walker will sign the measure at noon today in a ceremony in the business-heavy town of Rib Mountain just west of Wausau.

The TIF powers would be extended to just over two dozen urban towns that have at least 5,000 residents and total land values of $500 million or more. Supporters say it would give outlying communities the same ability as cities and villages to expand their tax bases with new business growth.

Under TIF funding, municipal governments create zones in which the increased property tax revenues from new projects are used for things like nearby streets and sewers. Once the amenities are paid off, only then would schools, counties and technical colleges get a share of those additional taxes.

Senate Republican Jerry Petrowski of Marathon sponsored the TIF town bill after a special measure was created last session to grant the financing powers so mail-order distributing firms could locate near freeways south of Milwaukee.


Total grocery prices are a little lower in Wisconsin

Wisconsin grocery shoppers paid 6% less than the national average for basic food items in March, according to the latest Farm Bureau Market Basket survey.

The survey also revealed a slight increase in food prices over the past year.

Shoppers in almost 30 Wisconsin cities paid .3% more than last March for 16 basic food items. Some staples had some big price increases due to stronger exports and tight domestic supplies.

Wisconsin shoppers paid 32% more for potatoes, 21% more for eggs and 13% more for a gallon of milk.

The prices hikes were offset by reductions for other foods. White bread dropped 11%, and bagged salad cost 14% less. Six other items also had price cuts, including orange juice.

All told, the state's average price of the 16 food items was $50.04 -- up 13 cents from last March, but down slightly from last September. It was also more than $3 less than the national Farm Bureau figure of $53.27.


Walker won’t choose between congressional contenders

Gov. Scott Walker will not take sides in a U.S. House primary that could offer Republicans voters a choice between tea party conservatism and a more moderate GOP tradition.

State Senate Republican Glenn Grothman of West Bend, one of the Legislature's most outspoken conservatives, says he'll run against 35-year House incumbent Tom Petri of Fond du Lac. Walker said the only campaign he's focusing on is his own.

Grothman said yesterday that Petri represents a Republican establishment that has not done enough to slash federal spending. Grothman condemned the size of the national debt, growing numbers of food stamp recipients and increases in claims for job disability payments.

In various interviews yesterday, Grothman said he would work to end Obamacare and remove what he called a "disincentive to work."

Petri says his record of "pragmatic conservatism" speaks for itself, and he expects to win his GOP primary Aug. 12.

Grothman predicted that other Wisconsin House Republicans would get behind their colleague -- and both Paul Ryan and Sean Duffy endorsed Petri late yesterday.

Democratic state Assembly leader Peter Barca said the race would be "a real bellwether to see how far the Republican Party moves to the right."


Man charged in friend’s death

A Neenah man is free on bond after he was accused of killing a friend in a traffic crash while driving drunk with a suspended license.

Oconto County authorities said Zachary Romnek, 19, drove into a tree with his pickup truck early last Saturday about eight miles northeast of Mountain. Romnek's passenger, Thorton Gressler, 19, of Bonduel, died in the mishap.

Court officials said Romnek posted a $5,000 bond. He's due back in court next Thursday on felony charges of homicide by drunk driving and causing death while knowing that his license was suspended.



Assembly won’t try to move accused lawmaker from office

Wisconsin Assembly leaders have decided not to consider removing Waukesha Republican Bill Kramer from office.

A spokeswoman for Speaker Robin Vos said they did not want to interfere with a criminal case filed against Kramer a week ago. He's charged with two felony sexual assault charges for allegedly pushing, kissing and groping a female congressional aide in Muskego three years ago.

His lawyer says Kramer will plead not guilty when he appears in court April 14.

Kramer lost his Assembly majority leader's post last month after he entered treatment amid reports that he groped one woman and verbally harassed another on a recent GOP fundraising trip to Washington.

Kramer has said he will not run for reelection in November, but he refuses to quit now. In a letter yesterday, Assembly leaders again called on Kramer to resign. They noted his constituents could recall him if they don't.

Democratic Minority Leader Peter Barca said it would be impractical to pursue the long recall process with the next scheduled election just seven months away. Barca said it's a mistake for the Republicans to give up the possibility of removing Kramer.


State’s cheese production down -- again

For the fourth time in five months, Wisconsin's cheese production is down from the previous year.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture said the Badger State made just under 215 million pounds of cheese in February. That's about five million pounds less than the same month a year ago for a drop of 2.3%.

Wisconsin factories made more Italian cheeses in February. American and Cheddar cheese output was down.

Wisconsin remains the nation's top cheesemaker, but second-place California continues to close the gap. The Golden State pumped out 185 million pounds in February – 6% more than the month before.

Nationally, just over 850 million pounds of cheese were produced in February, down .6% from the same month in 2013.


Deeper water, heavier load expected on Lake Superior

Once the ice disappears, shippers on Lake Superior will carry bigger loads while saving money this summer.

That's because the lake was 13 inches higher last month than a year ago -- the highest for March since 1998.

Forecasters say Lake Superior will begin its seasonal rise this month.

--Minnesota News Network